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  • Séduire, C'est ToutFrancis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and the Struggle of Influence
  • Paul Sharma (bio)

One of the painter Francis Bacon's favorite bon mots was "séduire, c'est tout."1 With such a worldview, it is unsurprising that Bacon's work and life can be understood using René Girard's insights regarding the desire to influence or be influenced by the envied model, be it a person, a crowd, or even a country, resulting in mimetic forces that unleash violence.

This piece looks at Bacon's life and how the mimetic forces he experienced and intuitively understood are displayed in his painting. It examines the social and personal forces at play in four key works: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), Head VI (1949), Two Figures (1953), and Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), beginning with the work that put Bacon on the artistic map at the end of World War II, to the triptych that foretold the breakup of the long friendship between Bacon and Lucian Freud. [End Page 205]

1943: THE BLITZ ENDS

By the summer of 1943, the dust caused by the Luftwaffe bombing raid was mostly gone from the air in London, allowing the asthmatic Francis Bacon to return to South Kensington. The same summer, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony, one of the last great pieces of English neo-romanticism and arguably his greatest work, premiered at the nearby Royal Albert Hall.

It is strange to think that at the same time Vaughan Williams's Fifth was being played, down the road in Cromwell Place, the preparatory ground was being laid by Francis Bacon for Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a work that went well beyond any idea of English nostalgia and of which John Russell wrote, "There was English art before the Three Studies and there was English art after."2

Before looking at the work in more detail, it is worth examining its inception, as it follows a pattern outlined by René Girard, that of a conversion in which there is a profound change in beliefs and values. In the same way that diamonds are formed out of coal if there is high enough pressure, Girard notes that "an experience of demystification, if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion."3

Bacon's conversion occurred at the latter end of 1940 to 1942, a period he never discussed. He retreated to the country sixty miles outside London, to recover from his asthma and very likely from some form of breakdown, following a period as an air raid warden in London.

The formula for each conversion is unique, and for Bacon, the catalyst bringing his experiences of art, the Blitz, his view of society, and his personal history together into a single style was the recently issued W. B. Stanford's Aeschylus in His Style: A Study in Language and Personality. A clue to Stanford's importance is Bacon later recalling that "some of the images are so startlingly beautiful in there and so exciting I go on reading it over and over again."4

Stanford's insight into the use of a combination of a highly expressive and at the same time formal style in Aeschylus enabled Bacon to gather his influences and preoccupations of the previous decade to create his vision and, arguably, his first fully impactful works. (It could be said that the first work of real originality was the 1933 painting Crucifixion (Figure 1), a protype of the 1944 triptych, being of sufficient force to be included in Herbert Read's Art Now review of the same year).

Stanford argued that the Greek playwright's "style was not of the unobtrusive, subtly modulated kind that escapes criticism," adding, "One is reminded of the strained, almost grotesque figures of a painting by El Greco … and the [End Page 206]


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Figure 1.

Francis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1933. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2023. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

reason for both of these Greeks' extraordinary style is similar—the tension between an original and...

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